I used to work in Westfield White City, and it was a familiar pilgrimage to step out of the tube station and walk the incline up to the shopping centre. There was a point in my life when I was living the dream of the man who invented shopping malls. I would wake up early and travel into Westfield, have breakfast there, go to the gym, go to lunch, go to work, meet friends there. Ironically, it felt like a spartan, single life of order. I lived to work, eat, write, read, and work out.
It is not a better or worse life than any other point in my life, there is always a temptation and desire to categorise everything into lists and ranks. Life is messier, sometimes slower, sometimes less dramatic. There are times when you take everything and run, you start over and suddenly you’re in a different city with some other job. Then there’s times when you turn around and realise you’re on a completely different stretch of beach, and the process has been lovely, it has been placid, like a yawn.
I do believe that life is too short (or perhaps too long) to suffer. That you should not run away screaming at the first hurdle, but anything that is not making you happy, if it can be improved, then it should be. Especially when it comes to jobs. There are too many downtrodden people in life who feel like the job they are in is the only job available to them, like they have reached some kind of plateau of misery and it’s not going to get any better.
It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted in my life when it came to a job, and I had the fortune of working in retail jobs that proved fun and exciting, and took me to a lot of different places in the world. I’ve also worked many thankless fifteen-hour, six days a week shifts, where the entire operation of running a store seemed to hang by a severely frayed thread.
I’ve always believed that if you want to lead a team, you should lead by example, and that is a term too thrown around these days. It has lost all meaning. It’s a favourite of higher management, who sit in offices all day and have time to get coffee in the morning, to take their lunch when they wish, and be home by 6pm every evening while calling whoever sits below them to tell them to work harder. They are applauded for e-mailing everyone at 3am from the comfort of their beds, without everyone knowing they woke up at 3pm that day and could have e-mailed everyone at normal hours if they weren’t so busy shopping or going for lunch meetings.
If you want a team to respect you, you have to be right there at 10pm with them, you have to let them go early as a sneaky treat some days. You have to be there with doughnuts in the morning, and speak to them like adults instead of worke bees.
It has been my intense pleasure as a retail manager to develop and nurture people. To give them opportunities and see them grow in confidence. I can’t say I’ve cared very much if my store had a £4 million turnover in 2012, made on the backs of people working minimum wage for someone who will never meet them personally, for who £4 million is short change.
This is what has led me back into university, to finish what I started at 18 and had too much freedom to realise was the focus. Not to say that I don’t feel like I have had an advantage, taking the long road to an intensely happy place. I am well travelled, healthier, more confident and satisfied than I ever was at 18. I’ve tried my hand at completel different jobs, and realised that developing and cultivating young minds, telling them they can aspire to higher in life, and showing them that maybe the answers to their questions lie in the works of Shakespeare instead of Jersey Shore sounds like an interesting path to take.
I’m going to look forward to working retail part-time, to go back to enjoying meeting different people every day and making them happy, without the pressure of paperwork and targets. To no longer have two sets of keys, or the responsibility of a dozen people’s wellbeing and lives on my shoulders. No more texts at 6am telling me someone isn’t coming in to work that day, and what that may mean for the day ahead. No more sleepless nights plotting, planning, and stressing about where £10,000 is going to come from in the next two days, wondering about the possibility of running out into the street and just stealing everyone’s wallets to satisfy a ravenous machine that is never satisfied.
Back to Westfield, a place I had not visited in about a year, and had not frequented since my departure. It remains the same, with a few changes here and there. It is still full of people. My old store is still there, with different faces populating it, none of who can see all the sweat and tears I left behind on the floor. Nobody misses me, nobody probably remembers me, and in some strange way that is a liberating thought. The person that succeeded me is going through the same things I went through each year, and the person after them will go through the same again, each thinking they are discovering America somehow.
The small surprise came when I was coming out of the station. My overbearing boss had once upon a time gained a promotion, succeeding in not just making every store in the UK miserable, but every store in Europe. He was succeeded by someone who lived in his constant shadow. They were two miserable people in two miserable jobs who clearly had expected more from life. Yet there was no plan, no big idea to change in any way. They were stuck at the peak of what would be their lives, probably dreaming of freedom.
I don’t claim to know their intentions, I only knew of their misery, and as such I went looking for other things. I started studying part-time and found joy again, realising this was the step I needed to take in order to have a fufilling career that didn’t eat me alive.
My now boss’ boss, although supposedly in charge of every store in Europe, loved nothing more than spending time at Westfield, so I was constantly treated to his presence and lunch meetings. How nobody missed him I’ll never know.
This was not a hallucination, they were both standing outside the station, three years later and still in the same place. From their body language it was clear he had taken her outside for some “coaching”, a lecture based partly on whatever management book he was reading at the time and partly based on vitriol, a pulpit he had built for himself where he was the best authority on not only how you should manage your business, but how you should act, stand, eat, place your feet, style your hair, and talk in front of others.
I had been the subject of many of these, dependent on his mood showered by praise or utterly ripped to shreds, but always ending in a biting comment based on rumour, conjectue or fabrication. Something to take with you to bed, to keep you loyal and downtrodden.
There they stood, almost crystalline, trapped in some kind of shameful amber. A Greek punishment, where no matter what day it is, year after year you will be subjected to the same abuse.
I ducked behind a crowd, with no desire to engage. These were ghosts haunting the places I had left behind, geographically and in spirit. I walked away, again. The universe prompting me that whatever came in the future, bravery was a gift in itself.